But the force, known by its French acronym, MONUC, intends to press ahead with the operation, codenamed Kimia II, stressing that civilian protection is its top priority. Its target is the Forces démocratiques pour la libération de Rwanda (FDLR), a 6,000-strong armed group that has been a key ingredient of instability in the Kivu provinces ever since its founders fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Some 30 percent of the FDLR’s forces are now Congolese.
“If we do nothing I think that there will never be lasting peace in the Kivus as long as one group or another remains out of the control of the state,” warned Alan Doss, the UN secretary general’s special representative (SRSG) in DRC.
Kimia II comes on the heels of Operation Umoja Wetu (“Our Unity”), conducted in January by an unprecedented alliance of DRC and Rwandan troops in North Kivu, which did little to reduce the threat posed by the FDLR and led to a spate of brutal reprisals against civilians, especially women, and to a new wave of internal displacement.
Since the start of the year, 800,000 people have fled their homes in the Kivus. In South Kivu the figure for the past three months alone is 124,000, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Rape, as a weapon of war, has become even more commonplace in the region, not only by the FLDR but also FARDC troops.
“There are fears that if these operations go on for a long time the already-precarious humanitarian situation will worsen as much for civilians as for humanitarian actors," said OCHA spokesman Nestor Yombo.
Catholic bishops in the Kivus have also warned that the anti-FDLR operations have had “enormous negative consequences and raise questions about the possible hidden motives that would justify such risky operations whose results are in any case unpredictable as we have seen in North Kivu [with Operation Umoja Wetu]”.
In a public statement, the bishops said “the hunt for the FDLR appears poorly organized and the attacks will occur without distinction between [FDLR] soldiers and civilian Rwandan refugees.” There are an estimated 20,000 civilian dependants of the FDLR in eastern DRC.
"There is no guarantee that this new operation will do better than Umoja Wetu," they added.
In May, Oxfam issued a stern warning about the dangers of Kimia II, saying that although “a solution is needed to halt appalling levels of human rights abuses committed by armed rebels, the answer cannot be action that knowingly increases levels of human suffering.”
"By any yardstick [Umoja Watu] has been a humanitarian disaster and one the world has ignored. The UN force’s top priority in Congo must be to protect the lives of innocent civilians. The UN needs to be aware of the full implications of continuing to support military action in the present circumstances."
Photo: Les Neuhaus/IRIN
|A woman watches as a UN armored-personnel carrier passes by the village of Rutshuru, about 65 km north of Goma - file photo|
For the International Crisis Group (ICG), military action against the FDLR is necessary but not as envisaged under Kimia II and only as part of a “comprehensive strategy.”
In a May report entitled Congo: Five priorities for a peace-building strategy, ICG urged MONUC, Kinshasa and Kigali to “suspend Operation Kimia II and plan new joint military operations against the FDLR in which Rwandan special forces pressure the hardcore armed leadership that refuses voluntary disarmament, while MONUC and the Congolese army fill the vacuum created by those measures, prioritising an immediate increase in protection of civilians and proceeding with disarming the rank and file.”
The report also called for “increased outreach to FDLR rank and file, most of whom had nothing to do with the Rwandan genocide, and offer incentives and relocation outside the Kivus to those who accept voluntary disarmament.”
Recent policy shifts by Rwanda and DRC “have created the most conducive regional political environment for peace-building [in the Kivus] in two decades...
“Unless momentum for radical reforms and decisive action against impunity are fostered the Kivus will revert to a new state of neither peace nor war, a low-intensity conflict under the radar screen of capitals but with continuing tragic consequences for its civilians.”
SRSG Doss, MONUC’s ultimate chief, told reporters in Kinshasa earlier in June that he “fully shared” the concerns aid agencies had about the operation.
“I tried to reassure them telling them that we are tirelessly looking for ways to improve protection of and access to civilians affected by violence.”
“We have insisted that these operations start with the setting-up of a protection corridor before direct operations against the FDLR to minimize damage and risks to the population.”
MONUC has also set up protection teams, made up of humanitarian actors including child protection and human rights specialists.
Doss explained the three objectives of the operation: “to protect the population; to put an end to the threat of the FDLR by persuading them to disarm and to return to Rwanda; and to re-establish the authority of the Congolese state in the two provinces. This campaign includes a full range of actions that will be both sharply limited in duration or carried out over a long period.”
MONUC spokesman Kevin Kennedy said the current situation in the Kivus “shows the need for this operation and the importance of executing the mandate that the Security Council has given MONUC.”
“I agree that there are a lot of challenges ahead but I do not believe that puts in doubt our mission or the importance of supporting the FARDC. Rather it shows that the support of the international community and the United Nations is indispensible in the current situation.
Photo: Les Neuhaus/IRIN
|A boy stands in front of an armored-personnel carrier manned by MONUC troops near Goma, capital of North Kivu Province|
As Kennedy noted, some of these challenges relate to the shortcomings of the army, where poor pay, living conditions, training, morale and command structure are sometimes more conducive to mutiny, rape and pillage than professional soldiering or civilian protection.
Furthermore, the army and the FDLR have in recent years often worked in alliance with each other against common enemies.
These problems have been compounded by the recent hasty absorption of thousands of fighters from armed groups that threw in the towel earlier this year.
“It is also true that the rapid integration of armed groups and the command, logistical and discipline problems of the FARDC have resulted in exactions or other abuses of the population by elements of the FARDC,” he said.
Some action is being taken to deal with such soldiers: 24 have been detained for alleged abuses against civilians are to face military courts.
Pointing to another factor limiting the clout of Kimia II, Kennedy said: “we are still waiting for  requested air transport assets that were authorised by the Security Council last November. We are doing the best with what we have. We do not have the option of waiting or doing nothing.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions